Being in a band – attention seeking behaviour

Continuing my musical life story with one of the stranger episodes- how attention-seeking ended the first band I led.

By the middle of the 1980s, in Manchester, I’d got over the novelty of multitrack recording and begun to take songwriting seriously.

Solitary songwriting

I’d been writing songs since I was 16 but I’d always tended to rush it, taking the first draft as ‘it’ and if inspiration didn’t come, not writing at all. Moving to a new job in Staffordshire, I found myself living in a hotel during the week while Mrs Lamont was selling our house in Manchester to enable us to buy in our new village. This was expected to be a couple of months but actually took six months.

Six months in which I was stuck in the Peak Weavers, Leek, with an acoustic guitar. I started to use the time to revise some old songs that had I’d been messing with for a while, completely rewrite some and write some new ones. Without my Portastudio I had to focus on melody and words rather than adding layers of instruments to disguise weak songwriting. A couple of the songs that eventually – very eventually – found their way onto my albums were drafted and redrafted in this hotel room: Call Back Fall Back and Best of the Blues (a rewrite of a cringeworthy song from the days of Window Bill).

The Peak Weavers

But once Mrs Lamont and baby Plague (I find myself returning to the names I gave my children when I started blogging – Plague and Pestilence!) had moved from Manchester, I began to think about a band. I’d never had a band of my own, doing my songs.

Violinist? Not exactly

I advertised in a music shop in Stoke for a violinist and bass player. Nothing happened for months then out of the blue I got a call from a young man who played blues harp and whistle, but who fancied being in a band. Without much enthusiasm for those instruments I drove to Stoke to meet him. After hearing his deep voice on the phone it was a bit of a shock to learn Matt was still at school! But he was a superb player, able to quickly find something appropriate for every song, and adding drive and raunch to my languid songs. Moreover he knew a violinist, Chris, even younger than him, but a good player. He didn’t improvise much but he could transcribe melodies I hummed, learned them quickly and added ideas of his own. With a handful of my songs and some covers and folk songs – I can’t remember any now – we played at a couple of folk clubs. As they were both under age I was responsible for getting them in and out of the pub sober and getting them home.

He was into Bob Dylan in a big big way

One Saturday evening in October 1988 I wrote The Ballad of Bob Dylan (the full story of the song is here) and eagerly presented it to the band that week. We knew this would raise the stakes for us and it did. It gave Matt a chance to shine on blues harp. We added a bass player, Toby (thankfully not another schoolkid), and started playing regular floor spots at Keele University folk club. Our popularity there grew until we were offered a headline spot. Then, after some weeks, another headline spot.

And that’s when it happened.

The Hungry Ghost

For four years in Manchester and the first year in Leek I’d been creating music with an imaginary audience, dreaming that one day I would discover people who liked my music. It had become a central fantasy. Now it was becoming real. You’d think I’d be satisfied. You’d think I’d be happy. After our second Keele headline quite a few people had congratulated us, shaken my hand, asked if we had records (of course we didn’t), praised the songs and the performance. I took Matt and Chris home and started the drive back to Leek. It was nearly midnight. I was reflecting on the way people had been complementing the music, liking my performance.

And suddenly – so suddenly I can still see the the bend in the road where it happened – I realised it wasn’t enough, I still wanted more and I would ALWAYS want more, no matter how much I got. It was a terrifying vision of endless dissatisfaction and craving for approval. I came home shaken.

I was reminded of the Tibetan mythical characters the Hungry Ghosts – people whose lives were characterised by greed, who find themselves reborn as creatures with distended, empty bellies and choked thin necks who crave food but can’t swallow it. So much so that, as a reminder, it would become the name of my next band years later.

For the next few days I couldn’t bring myself to contact the band. It was a wake-up call that said if I continued to try to feed my ego this way I would always be hungry. I couldn’t see a way to get on stage again without starting the whole process up again. I had my family, and a new baby about to be born. That would have to be my focus. I would have to find a way to make music for its own sake, in its own time, not just to get people’s approval. A few weeks later Pestilence was born and I willingly laid music aside for a year or so.

In hiding

Looking back I’m happy with that, but what I’m not happy with is the way I treated the band. I just didn’t contact them – ever again. I knew I couldn’t explain to them what I’d seen – I didn’t think anyone could understand it – and I didn’t want them to think I was ending the band because of any fault of theirs. So I just hid away. Before social media it was much easier to do that. I feel bad about it to this day, they deserved better. Then again, I’m sure they got over it very quickly indeed!

Just over a year later we moved to Edinburgh. The house sale process threw me into another six months of songwriting solitude in my new city. The vision of craving for attention would return time and again to haunt me, and prompted a second withdrawal from performing in the early 1990s, but I’ve reached an accommodation with it now and it’s just like a familiar itch that needs scratched every now and then.

That’s how I had my first band, and panicked myself out of it.

 

My life in music: Egypt, Manchester, the Portastudio and Cupid

Continuing my long and winding road through music. How I found moved from Egypt to Manchester and found multi-track heaven in the Teac Tascam Portastudio 144.

Heliopolis street scene (Click for full size)

Cairo

At the age of 28 I was living in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, and teaching English to working people in an evening school. This was my second stint there. I’d been there five years earlier, at the same school. In the intervening years I’d tried my hand at work in the mental health field, and even got halfway through social work training in Manchester. I’d come away from that without a social work qualification but with a wife-to-be. I’d reluctantly returned to English as a Foreign Language, taking a lucrative contract in Germany. When that ended my wife-to-be Madame Lamont and I decided to stay expat and accepted the offer of a short contract in Egypt.

My first spell in Egypt had coincided with a surge of optimism in the country. They’d shaken off their ties with the Soviet Union and embraced American investment and a peace deal with Israel that would return Sinai to Egypt. The youth and the middle classes were outward-looking, Bohemian and excited. Now, five years later, Sadat had been assassinated, the peace dividend had been secreted away by the upper classes and military, and people were disillusioned. Mubarak’s reign was just beginning, albeit with no suggestion he would ever become a tyrant. He was more a figure of fun – ‘La Vache Qui Rit’. Young people were beginning to look to the purity and rectitude of Islam as an antidote to the corrupt and tarnished American Dream they’d been promised. I was surprised to see some of the glamorous women who worked in the school five years ago were now wearing the hijab. ‘It means I can walk down the street without getting hassled.’ Things were changing.

Being in Egypt as a single guy in a community of young single people in an open and experimental Egypt had been exciting. Being there five years later at the side of a blonde, blue-eyed woman showed me different undercurrents – life was tense and watchful.

Sound on sound the hissy way

One thing that hadn’t changed was recording methods. I was delighted to find the school still used a cassette of songs I’d recorded with friends five years ago. We’d ‘multitracked’ by recording onto one ghetto-blaster cassette player then playing it back sitting by the mic of another cassette player, and adding harmonies or handclaps as it played. It was crude but it seemed as near as any of us would ever get to a recording studio.

What’s a Portastudio?

 

Portastudio ad

One day a friend sent me a few music papers from the UK to keep up with the music scene. One was Melody Maker. I’ve no idea what artists or albums were in it, but the thing that caught my imagination was an advert for the Tascam 144 Portastudio. This was the first ‘home multitrack recording studio’. It used ordinary cassettes but was able to recording four separate tracks to be played back simultaneously and mixed. And by bouncing recordings from two or three tracks onto a free track, in exactly the way the Beatles built Sgt Pepper, you could do layer upon layer. It had a price tag that was just slightly below prohibitive – around £200 I think! – but my teaching stint in Germany had been fairly lucrative. We decided to return to the UK, enabling Madame to establish her career in social work and me to get my hands on one of these.

After a few months Madame got a job in Manchester and we moved there. The new model of Portastudio, the 244, had come out and I was able to find a second-hand 144 in a small ad in the Manchester Evening News. We had enough money left to assemble the basics of a multitrack studio – a mic and stand, a bass guitar, a drum machine, a Casio keyboard and a delay unit. Madame went out to work and I went into multi-track heaven. (Incidentally the Portastudio 144 found another fan in Bruce Springsteen, who used it to record his Nebraska album at home. It was meant as a demo, but became the final album.)

How I became a woman using varispeed

My first year’s efforts were, of course, dreadful: bad playing, drenched in delay and reverb, and way too many tracks bounced into a hissing stew of distortion. But gradually I got it under control as a songwriting tool and taught myself, by trial and error, to arrange songs without overloading them, to keep in time and to master punch-in recording to correct a particular phrase or melody line. One of the songs I first arranged on that Portastudio in Manchester has found its way, almost 30 years later, to a ‘professional’ recording on the new album. That’s Damn Grey. I’d planned to post here a comparison of the two versions but found I no longer have the means to transfer cassette tracks to the PC.

Instead I’ll leave you with a fun little track where I used the Portastudio’s varispeed function on my voice to record my version of a ‘dialogue’ song by Little Esther and Johnny Otis, released in 1950. I could slow down the track, sing a part, then return the track to its normal speed and I sounded like a woman. I learned the song from a cassette given away by NME. Ah, the days …

My life in music: see Window Bill

Continuing my musical autobiography …

University mugshot
University mugshot

You’d have thought going to University, suitcase and guitar in hand, would have been the perfect springboard for a teenage performing career. For some reason, when I went to Glasgow University at 18, it wasn’t.

I never meant to be here

Partly this was because it was unexpected. I hadn’t intended this at all. In sixth year I’d applied for four art schools, my heart set on becoming an artist for Marvel Comics (at a time when Marvel was on nobody else’s radar, certainly not the general public’s). Unfortunately assessment boards at all four had this strange notion that to study art I should be able to display at least some rudimentary skill in drawing something other than muscular men in capes beating seven shades of shit out of each other in the sky. Reader, I couldn’t.

Thus it was that I started History of Fine Art at Glasgow University, and jumped in my first week from that to Principles of Religion (studying Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism). While my roommate Alan immediately started playing bass in a pub band and getting paid for it, I was disoriented and dittered around various folk clubs and the odd jam session but didn’t find anyone inspiring to work with until the end of my second year.

SPIRIT

Browsing the University student societies, I joined a group of ex (and not-so-ex) hippies called something like Society for Spiritual and Psychological Research or SPIRIT. The idea was to invite all sorts of spiritual groups to the basement meeting room and either partake of their wisdom or give them a rationalist grilling, whatever felt right on the night.  I can recall a few of those nights. The Baha’i Faith brought excellent food. The Hare Krishnas were quite mind-altering but there was no doubt that the cause was the ear-splitting insistence of their finger-cymbals in a small, echoey basement. We had a session with basins and hot water where we simply washed each other’s feet (after the Biblical tradition) which, after the initial giggling subsided,  became a tender and heartwarming experience. The group soon lost direction and motivation until I invited a Sufi teacher whom I’d met in Edinburgh and we happily became his Glasgow offshoot until the end of the year. He went on to set up the Salisbury Centre in Edinburgh while SPIRIT became no more than a strange memory.

Musicians wanted

Alan drew to my attention a handwritten ad in some music shop saying ‘musicians wanted for a band’. We went along to a basement flat just off Byres Road and met Dave Christopher, a former music student who now wanted to create a folk-rock band. Discovering a mutual love of the Incredible String Band, we hit it off. When he played me his songs, though, I was stunned. They weren’t in the ISB space, nor in any strum-along-three-chords space I’d occupied before. Melody poured out of Dave effortlessly, the way I imagine it would if you were in a room with Paul McCartney, probably the closest style to Dave. His fingers spidered across the fretboard in ways I couldn’t follow, coaxing melodic basslines, ringing open strings and melodic twists and turns. Of course I had to be in his band.

This ate up a year. Rehearsal to me up to that point had been ‘What are the chords? Let’s play it a few times. That’s good. Next?’. With Dave and our six-piece band it was the constant layering and schooling of four-part harmonies over odd time signatures. Two or three times a week for four hours. The lineup gradually settled to two rhythm guitars, lead guitar, mandolin, bass and drums, and we got to know the songs. Dave invited some of us to add our own songs, which we did, although none of them were of his standard. I played rhythm guitar, mandolin, hand percussion and even – strange to tell, howling electric violin. We called the band Window Bill, because every time the local banks changed their hours for a bank holiday they all displayed a poster saying only ‘See Window Bill’.

Window Bill, the band, in rehearsal
Window Bill rehearsal, Dave second from left, me in the middle

Once and once only

While that would have been great marketing, it was only great marketing if it were possible for the public to actually see Window Bill. Having rehearsed for almost a year, with that intensity that only a semi-employed semi-student, semi-benefits-claimant band can, we performed our accomplished harmonies and Beatles/Steely Dan-esque songs only once, to a handful of people at an afternoon gig in  secondary school in Gourock, then split up. Dave followed his dreams to London, and without his guidance the rest of us fell apart. No recordings of the band exist .

While I continued writing songs and playing in various loose affiliations over the next few years (including with Dave when he returned from London to Edinburgh) it never had that seriousness of purpose again for many years.

(Dave still lives in Edinburgh and still writes excellent music. Every few years we do a set together at a mutual friend’s party.)

My life in music: off the beaten track with Tyrannosaurus Rex and The Incredible String Band

Cover of Unicorn by Tyrannosaurus Rex

Continuing my life in music …

Until I got my guitar, I’d drifted away from rock towards listening to classical and film music. As a young teenager rediscovering pop music via my guitar, at first I followed fairly conventional bands: I loved Simon and Garfunkel. I loved Cat Stevens. I enjoyed, but didn’t really love, Neil Young, CSNY and James Taylor. Anyone with an acoustic guitar basically. The first deviation was when my friend Guy played me Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Unicorn.

Tyrannosaurus Rex – the lizard on the wallCover of Unicorn by Tyrannosaurus Rex

I’d long been puzzled about the huge graffiti along Ayr beach promenade wall – “Tyrannosaurus Rex” – why would someone go to the trouble of painting the name of a dinosaur on the wall 200 feet long? It’s a band, he explained to me. This was the same Guy who’d introduced me to Lord of the Rings (then an obscure and unloved hardback trilogy in the library), and he proposed Marc Bolan as the missing link between rock and Tolkien. I listened through the strange, slurred, bleating vocals and heard, not rock, but old-time melodies reminiscent of the music-hall and minstrel songs my gran used to sing me, something sweetly nostalgic. As with every music I fell for in those days I wanted my friends and even my parents to hear it – surely they’d love it too. Well, reader, they didn’t. For the first time I found myself a fan of outsider music. And I kind of liked it.

The String Band – first contact

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter album sleeveThe Incredible String Band were beckoning to me long before I heard them. I saw their album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter in the shops and was intrigued as much by the winter blue sky of the cover as by the strangely-clad duo on the front. I was intrigued by the name and questions like ‘What kind of band has only two people?’ At the school folk club, which met after hours on Tuesday afternoons – you could sit on the desks and socialise with girls, as well as learning some great songs – two of the older boys, about to leave school, used to sing You Get Brighter and Hedgehog’s Song, and said they were by the Incredible String Band. I thought maybe I would like them, but at that time an album was something I would have to save for weeks to buy, so I wasn’t ready to buy something I wouldn’t be sure of. I stuck to my Simon and Garfunkel and Moody Blues.

I discovered that a friend’s big brother owned another Incredible String Band album, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion. We put it on, but it was strange and disturbing. Off-kilter vocals, abrupt changes of style. I couldn’t figure it out at all, and didn’t enjoy it.It made Tyrannosaurus Rex sound accessible.

I Looked Up

Maybe a year later, I borrowed The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter from the ever-reliable Guy, my guide to unexplored music. On first listen I was again repulsed. Robin Williamson seemed wilfully discordant and Mike Heron like a drunken shouting folk singer. But my friend told me to give it a few tries and I did. The second try did it. First I was seduced by the comedy of the Minotaur’s Song then by the shrill fantasy of Swift As the Wind. By the time I returned it to him two days later I was hooked.

t that time, aged 16 and forbidden from going to Glasgow on my own, I had no prospect of seeing the String Band. But the two sixth-year boys who’d played the tunes at the school folk club had gone on to form a would-be Incredibles called the Barrow Band. They’d recruited a singer and writer every bit as mystical as Robin Williamson. I saw them perform at a village hall in Alloway, where this mysterious singer Robert Miller (Millar?) stunned the hushed hall, intoning ‘In the silence of this hall I raise my lips to sing, the simple truth that one is all and one is everything.’ This chimed with the mystical and spiritual literature I was beginning to devour now. It felt like the nearest I’d come to seeing my new heroes. Soon afterwards the Barrow Band went their separate ways. One of them, James Hutcheson, would later become a graphic designer, and design record art for the String Band and Mike Heron. At the Ayr Folk Club, a cosy Sunday night was blasted by the high energy vocals and percussion of the Natural Acoustic Band, who also moved in the String Band’s circuit.

The Jim Sprigott Occult Quart

What was it about them? There was the exotic instrumentation – sitar, shanai, gimbri – then the flamboyant clothes, the poetry in another league of literary skill from Marc Bolan’s more playful meanderings. But there was also the humour, a very Scottish humour, bold moves like deflating the profundity of the 15-minute cosmic chant Creation with a final chorus of kazoo and washboard. When I finally got to see them at Glasgow City Hall, the humour was as much in evidence as the mysticism.

Norman aged 18The peak of my fandom came when I celebrated my 18th birthday backstage with the Band after a Kelvin Hall gig, with a kiss on the cheek from backing singer and hippy goddess Licorice. There was a sense of community at their gigs that nobody else had. You could always go backstage, you could always talk to them. In one way they were like esoteric gods but in another way like your friends who’d got to run riot in a musical instrument shop.

All Too Much for Me

They were divisive, no doubt about that. Friends either loved them as I did or couldn’t stand them. I learned this when I brought Robin Williamson’s solo album Myrrh round to a prospective girlfriend’s house one afternoon. I wasn’t asked back.

So what kind of music do you play?

I was starting to write songs but there was little direct Incredibles influence. When I tried to write in their patchwork style it was laughably false, but what I did take from them was a disregard of genre. This too contrasted with many of my friends who would tend to stick to one genre, mostly the new acoustic orthodoxy coming out of California. My friends and I, however, would gleefully swing from folk to 1920s Vaudeville to country, reggae and rock just as the String Band would do, in their case all within a five minute song.

This genre-hopping has been a bit of a problem throughout my career – ‘What kind of music do you play?’ invites a response like ‘country’ ‘rock’ ‘industrial death metal with dub’. So for my lack of success on American FM radio, I can blame the Incredible String Band!

Other posts about the String Band

 

My life in music: je suis un singer-songwriter

Scene from the Rencontre Franco Ecossaise

At the age of 16 I’d been playing for less than two years but was able to pick up tunes quickly and guesstimate chords from a few hearings of a song.

My passport photo aged 16That year, 1970, our school took part in the Rencontre Franco-Ecossaise. About fifty 16-year olds from Ayrshire schools got to spend two weeks of the summer in a school in Rambouillet, just outside Paris, with fifty of their equivalents from French schools, after which the entire crew decamped to Cumnock, a mining village in Ayrshire. It was the biggest adventure of my life to date, made even more exciting by two factors: we would get to spend a lot of time not only with girls, but with French girls!!!, and I was introduced to a new friend, Jack, a born rebel who gave me the freedom to play at being an artist/rock star/rebel in the midst of my school crowd. With my guitar and with Jack as my guide, at last I approached cool.

I’d been told about Jack by a mutual friend – she knew someone else  who was into Marc Bolan and Tyrannosaurus Rex (this was before T. Rex) and the Kinks. We were made for each other, and spent the long train and boat trip to  France singing and celebrating our knowledge of our heroes.

There are many stories to tell one day of the Rencontre, from our first encounters with beer to one of the girls having an affair with a teacher, to passing Cat Stevens on the street, but Jack was the star of the show and I was his trusty sidekick. When the time came for the closing concert we decided to write a song. It was a simple blues about the experience of the pupils, tearing strips off the teachers of course, and it was my first song. (We knew nothing of the history of the blues – we’d learned the chords from Organ Blues on Tyrannosaurus Rex’s A Beard of Stars! It was only later I noticed how many songs had the same chords.

Here we are in Cumnock at the Rencontre Franco-Ecossaise
Here we are in Cumnock at the Rencontre Franco-Ecossaise
You can do anything as long as it’s what the teacher says.

They watch you all the time so you don’t go off the beaten track
They watch you all the time so you don’t go off the beaten track
That’s not my shadow it’s a teacher crawling up my back

And so on, followed by a celebratory chorus

That don’t matter and the place don’t matter at all
It’s friendship that matters and we’re friends here one and all

We ran onto the stage as the headline act of the concert, me with my guitar and shades, Jack with his patched jumper and long hair (adored by the French girls), throwing his head back and singing. My first gig performing an original song and we were stars!

Scene from the Rencontre Franco Ecossaise

Scene from the Rencontre Franco Ecossaise

My life in music: my first guitar

The One O'Clock Gang cast
The One O’Clock Gang from 77rpm.co.uk

My first guitar was probably my first love too.

The guitar had always been part of my fantasy life. I’d first seen it on the One O’Clock Gang, as a suave gentleman with a pencil moustache and a knowing half-smile stroked jazz standards from a large semi-acoustic with f-holes and gleaming dials and pickups, still glamorous through the murky black and white of Scottish Television circa 1958.  On my endless daily shopping afternoons with mum and gran, however, I’d linger outside the music shop, in awe at the carefully-lit beauties in the window, polished to perfection, in dizzying colour. What did those dials and switches do?


Old acoustic guitarWhen I was 9, the Beatles swept into the media followed by their train of ‘beat group’ agitators. Again, guitars were everywhere. I would draw them, play imaginary ones and drool over guitars in catalogues.  I don’t recall what level of nagging or pleading persuaded my parents to buy me a guitar, but one day when I was about 14 we went to Thomsons Music Shop and came home with a vinyl case containing what was no more than a shaped plywood box with unforgiving metal wires stretched to the tuning heads from a metal brace at the bottom. I have no photos of it but found its cousin, described on the Guitar Noise website as ‘cheap as chips’.  That said, I was in love with it from the first moment, and it was my constant companion for four or five years.

Pretending to play electric

A family friend taught me my first few chords, but his abilities went no further than thumb-strumming Michael Row The Boat Ashore, and I was quickly on the hunt for more demanding fare. I had bought a grey plastic plectrum and discovered that if I plucked or strummed down near the bridge, it had a harsher, more metallic sound and I could imagine it was an electric. (I was, I think, 14. Unbelievably I would be 21 before I first played an electric and 24 before I owned one.)

The scent of my guitar

This cheap guitar was truly a thing of wonder to me. I would gaze at it from all angles, in all lighting conditions. I would pose with it, of course. I would mime guitar solos I hadn’t a hope of even understanding. I even loved the aroma of wood and resin, eyes shut and nose pressed up against the strings by the sound hole. I’d tune and detune the strings, relishing the strange buzzes and moans they made. I’d rub glasses, cups and knives along the strings foreshadowing my later love of bottleneck (I’d no idea there was such a thing).

Hold Down a Chord

But two events powered my learning to actually play it. One was the John Pearse TV series of lessons Hold Down A Chord, which taught me fingerpicking and enabled me to approach Simon and Garfunkel songs like Kathy’s Song and April Come She Will. (Martin Carthy learned guitar from the same series.)

Peer pressure

The other was when my three closest friends all acquired guitars and we set to learning together, in ferocious competition and loving co-operation, in a twelve-month burst that drove us from Michael Row The Boat to Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, T. Rex’s Ride A White Swan and Cat Stevens’ Father and Son. We’d spent hours in one’s bedroom then the other’s, sharing chords, inversions, fingerpicking styles and songs. At the end of that year I could call myself a guitarist.

Soon I would attempt to be a singer, then a singer-songwriter.